2007 : WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?

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Computer Scientist; Musician; Author, Who Owns The Future?
Computer Scientist and Musician

Interpersonal Communication Will Become More Profound; Rationality Will Become Ever More Romantic

An extravagant optimism ought to suggest new precipices of fulfillment that surpass mere responses to the many problems we already know about.

One extravagant idea is that the nature of communication itself might transform in the future as much as it did when language appeared. This is not easy to imagine, but here's one approach to thinking about it: I've been fascinated by the potential for "Post-symbolic Communication" for many years. This new style of interpersonal connection could become possible once large numbers of people become virtuosos at improvising what goes on in Virtual Reality.

We are virtuosos at spoken language. Adults speak with what seems like no effort at all, even though everyday chats might be the most complicated phenomena ever observed. I see no reason why new virtuosities in communication could not appear in the future, though it's hard to specify a timeframe.

Suppose you're enjoying an advanced future implementation of Virtual Reality and you can cause spontaneously designed things to appear and act and interact with the ease of sentences pouring forth during an ordinary conversation today.

Whether this is accomplished by measuring what your body does from the outside or by interacting via interior states of your brain is nothing more than an instrumentation question. Either way, we already have some clues about how the human organism might be able to improvise the content of a Virtual World.

Some of the most interesting data from VR research thus far involve Homuncular Flexibility. It turns out that the human brain can learn to control radically different bodies with remarkable ease. That means that people might eventually learn to spontaneously change what's going on in a virtual world by becoming parts of it.

That aspect of the brain which is optimized to control the many degrees of freedom of body motion is also well suited to controlling the many degrees of freedom of a superlative programming and design environment of the future. It is likely, by the way, that the tongue would turn out to be just as important in this type of communication as it is in language, for it is the richest output device of the human body. (I have already done some work on through-the-cheek tongue measurement to test this idea.)

Why bother? It's a reasonable hunch. Words have done so much for people- so alternatives to them with overlapping but distinct functions ought to lead to new ways of thinking and connecting.

An alternative to abstraction might arise — the possibility of expression through a fluid and capable concreteness. Instead of the word "house" you could conjure up a particular house. How do you even know it's a house without using the word? Instead of falling back on whatever the word "house" means, you might toss around a virtual bucket that turns out to be very large on the inside- and contains a multitude of house prototypes. In one sense this "fuzzy" collection is more precise than the word, in another, less so. It is different.

If all this sounds a little too fantastic or obscure, here's another approach to the same idea using more familiar reference points. Imagine a means of expression that is a cross between the three great new art forms of the 20th century: jazz improvisation, computer programming, and cinema. Suppose you could improvise anything that could be seen in a movie with the speed and facility of a jazz improviser. What would that mean for the sense of connection between you and someone you love?

There's a little book by James P. Carse with a wonderful title, Finite and Infinite Games. Some of the passages are bit too New Agey for me, but the core idea, expressed in the title, is clear and useful. A finite game is like a single game of baseball, with an end. An infinite game is like the overall phenomenon of baseball, which has no end. It is always a frontier.

So many utopian ideas are about Finite Games: End disease, solve global warming, get people to be more rational, reduce violence, and so on. As wonderful as all those achievements would (will!) be, there is something missing from them. Finite Game optimism suggests a circumscribed utopia, without frontier or mystery. The result isn't sufficiently inspiring for me- and apparently it doesn't quite grab the imaginations of a lot of other people who are endlessly fascinated by dubious religious and political utopias. The problem is heightened at the moment because there's a trope floating around in the sciences, probably unfounded, that we have already seen the outline of all the science we'll ever know, and we're just in the process of filling in the details.

The most valuable optimisms are Infinite Games, and imagining that new innovations as profound as language will come about in the future of human interaction is an example of one.